Dodging bullets in Brazil with Greenpeace
When self-confessed hippie and Innocent smoothies entrepreneur Richard Reed travelled to the Amazon, he wasn't sure what to expect. But it certainly wasn't Greenpeace activists with bullet-proof vests and night-vision goggles. This is his travel journal
Sunday 02 October 2005
On the plane, having a moment of clarity. I am looking at the map charting our progress over Brazil, thinking that the rainforest is big, but it is not that big, while reading that 200,000 acres a day of trees are being pulled down. Two... hundred... thousand. Every day.
I keep thinking that if it was really bad, then someone would stop it. But the truth is that there is no "someone". No one owns the rainforest, or controls it; there's just a series of people connected to it in some way, and 99 per cent of these directly benefit from chopping it down. Obviously, they'll be as screwed as the rest of us when they've finished, but in the meantime they can get seriously rich selling wood, soya and meat to the developed world.
I'm conscious that back home we're thinking about doing an Innocent soya-milk drink. I make a new promise; we will never, ever use rainforest soya. To do so would be as good as pulling down the trees ourselves.
MANAUS TUESDAY 10.51PM
Just had dinner with Paulo, the head of Greenpeace in the Amazon, and the rest of his team. First thing I learn is that the Greenpeace vehicles are bullet-proof. Hmm, good news I suppose that the cars can stop bullets; bad news that they need to. Secondly, we're having dinner in the internal courtyard of the hotel as there's "less risk of being shot". It all sounds a bit over the top, until I learn that Paulo has had three separate bounties put on his head by illegal loggers, and * recently was shot at four times - with the car's armoured plating saving his life. Must remember not to sit in the front with him again tomorrow.
GREENPEACE HQ, MANAUS
WEDNESDAY 24 AUGUST
Bullet-proof vests, tracking devices, night-vision goggles, jungle survival kits - this is some of the kit they have at Greenpeace, which makes it seem more like CTU in 24 than the offices of a NGO.
I am being shown round by Dave, Scotland's very own Jack Bauer, and Greenpeace's head of operations. He is hard. I am not. I am impressed. I get my picture taken with him.
But what I really notice is how well run Greenpeace is. I was expecting a bunch of well-meaning but essentially ineffective hippies. The reality is an organisation more efficient and tightly managed than any company I have ever experienced, my own included. They have a crystal-clear strategy - providing evidence in the form of satellite imagery and aerial photography for the government to prosecute illegal loggers, and applying for protected areas in key places to stop the further advancement of soy growers and cattle ranchers. And they are having significant successes.
It is interesting hearing about how public and political opinion in Brazil is affected much more by international than national media. The recent front page of The Independent in the UK about soy farming was picked up by every paper and news station here and finally gave the Brazilian government appetite to do something about the problem.
Having spent the day understanding the nature of the problem, it is obviously extremely complex. But what it boils down to is this: the rainforest - the source of 20 per cent of the world's oxygen, 50 per cent of the world's fresh water and home to 20 million people, is being pulled down for the sake of cheap burgers and making a few corrupt individuals incredibly rich.
MANAUS LOCAL AIRPORT
THURSDAY 25 AUGUST 8.20AM
Meet Fernando, the Greenpeace pilot. Turns out he's only had two plane crashes recently, which is great news. And the scars on his face, legs, arms and torso aren't that bad. Still, it's a new plane (donated by Mike, a City investor and self-confessed environmentalist, who is also on the trip), so Fernando is confident we'll be fine. And he's only been threatened with being shot down twice, so he's doing better than Paulo.
AIRBORNE ABOVE THE RAINFOREST
Up in the clouds, seeing the rainforest properly for the first time. It's as beautiful as everyone says it is, but boy is it getting screwed.
Apparently, we're not in a particularly bad area, but angular patches devoid of any cover constantly interrupt the canopy. On the horizon you can see smoke rising from where soya farmers are burning the trees to the ground. And we fly over areas that look like they've been napalmed. Not good.
I don't understand how it stops. I am an educated man, more left than right, with a bit of hippie in me. But when I read about what will happen as a result of the rainforest being destroyed - how the rain will stop, how local tribes will die, how we'll lose 20 per cent of the world's oxygen - I still find myself dumbly thinking that we'll find a solution. We'll send bottled water to people or we'll invent face masks that allow you to breath and you'll be able to get Gucci ones and, again, there it goes, another one of those moments when our culture of thinking we'll outsmart, improve and control nature pops up again. And it's that thinking that destroys us.
Still, must remember to order that Gucci face mask.
SOMEWHERE IN THE RAINFOREST
I visit Precious Woods, a sustainable logging operation in the middle of the Amazon. It takes just 15 per cent of the wood from an area once every 25 years, thereby allowing the forest to regrow. We go to see a tree being cut down. It's quite weird, standing with Greenpeace folk, watching this beautiful 100-year old tree being butchered. I'm not sure if I am supposed to throw myself on the guy's chainsaw in protest. I decide to take a photo instead.
Beyond the ecological considerations of this programme, the scheme also provides work for 800 local people. They earn three times the minimum wage, get given free food, medical treatment and accommodation (in an It Ain't Half Hot Mum sort of way) and receive paid holidays. Compare this to illegal logging, where people have to live in camps with no running water and buy their food and "accommodation" at inflated prices thereby becoming indebted and ultimately bonded to their masters. If Brazil does have to cut down its trees, it's got to do it the Precious Wood way.
That said, I believe that there really is no such thing as sustainable economic growth. There is only an improvement on current destructive practices and a slowing down. In the final instance, supply of most things is finite, whereas demand, due to growing population, increasing life expectancy and rising incomes, is infinite, so there's a long-term imbalance. The global birth rate has to come down. And there's one man who can help with this more than most. It's time to change your mind, Mr Pope. The world is getting a bit too busy, and we need all the condoms we can get.
I learn about rubber being sourced responsibly from nearby trees being used to make condoms. A great way to provide income for people and protect the forest, and I like the thought of telling people to Screw Saving the Amazon.
Greenpeace is keen for Innocent to use some locally and sustainably harvested fruit to use in a smoothie back home, which in a small way will create a livelihood for locals that doesn't involve them pulling down the forest. It's exactly our sort of thing. I'm trying loads of new fruits while I'm out here, some awful, some absolutely amazing. The one I'm most excited by is called cupasou, the only downside is that it is pronounced Cup-a-Soup, which kind of lacks that fresh natural image, if you know what I mean.
PRECIOUS WOODS HEAD OFFICE
More delightful stories about those charming illegal loggers. Four recently came to see the manager of Precious Woods saying that they were going to invade his land and start chopping his trees down. And if the manager complained, they would kill him.
PORTO DE MOZ
FRIDAY 26 AUGUST 4.23PM
Tree hugging in the Amazon, although not in the typical way. I've got food poisoning, and have been holding on to a tree for support while relieving my stomach of its contents. Still, this should mean the tree benefits from all this extra fertiliser.
We're at Verda Para, "Forever Green", a three- million hectare area recently protected thanks to the efforts of the local community and Greenpeace. Both children and adults here are extremely friendly. I film footage of the kids and, to their delight, show them it.
The protected status of this reserve has been hard won. It took four years to get the status assigned, during which the loggers burnt the villagers' boats, issued death threats and attacked men and women.
Some of the locals are wearing T-shirts with pictures of Sister Dorothy on them. She was a 73-year-old US nun helping the community with their cause, who was murdered recently by the loggers. Seeing as the loggers are prepared to murder defenceless old nuns, you can just imagine what they do to the locals.
PUNTO DEL RA
SATURDAY 27 AUGUST 10.16PM
Found out something new today; the going rate for killing a nun is 50,000 Brazilian reals, about £12,000. This nugget came from Felizzo, the federal prosecutor for this region of Brazil. He's put five men behind bars for Sister Dorothy's murder, but so far, the big loggers - the ultimate customers - have evaded prosecution.
Felizzo is a young, bright, tough but sensitive prosecutor - the stuff of John Grisham novels. He is another person living under death threats, personally giving his all in this fight against deforestation. Awesome guy. His friendship with Paulo is strong, and they are a great team; the action-orientated environmentalist and the prosecutor who provides the legal teeth. In the main they make light of the situation they're both in and there is lots of joking around. It's only when they talk about Sister Dorothy, who they both worked closely with, that the pain and very real grief surfaces. Learnt something else today: stay away from Paulo's Brazilian snuff, it's evil.
BACK IN MANAUS
SUNDAY 28 AUGUST 1.28PM
Final day. Wrap up on what we can all do to help. Mike, the guy who donated the plane, pledges another £100,000 a year to help run it. Everyone else pitches in with what they can afford. I pledge 10 per cent of the Innocent Foundation's funds to projects out here. Also importantly, actions are assigned, like trying to get UK attention to the soy problem - don't buy anything with Amazonian soy in it!
I decide that Paulo is my new hero. He has lived under armed guard for over 18 months, been attacked, given up a successful career to fight this fight and, through a tight strategy, a great team and a boatload of hard work, is delivering real success. Greenpeace needs more cash, and they definitely need us to stop buying cheap burgers (from cattle fed on Amazonian soy) and illegal wood, but there is hope.
Paulo sums up by saying he will not stop until he has got rid of all the "bastards" as he calls the loggers and illegal soy growers. And ends by saying thanks for coming over and becoming targets too, as it's lonely being the only person being shot at. *
For more information, visit www.greenpeace.org.uk
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